It's not easy, taking situations of high import and rendering them into drama without reducing its participants to saints and demons. Especially when one is confronted with such a one as Sophie Magdalena Scholl, the real-life heroine so radiantly portrayed by Julia Jentsch in the martyr drama Sophie Scholl - a smart, strident beacon for those fighting oppression, you could do much worse, and many films do.
In 1943, the 21-year-old Scholl was a student in Munich and member of the White Rose anti-Nazi resistance group. On February 18, Sophie and her brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) were arrested for distributing leaflets at the local university. On February 22, the two of them, along with a third member, were sentenced to death and executed the same day. Marc Rothemund's sober film is about what happens during that short stretch of time, how these three go from non-violent writers of pamphlets to facing down an apoplectic Nazi judge, fairly spitting with fury at the mere sight of those who would defame the Führer and handing out executions like candy.
Above all else, it is this execution looming at the film's end which makes Sophie Scholl truly stand apart from other films about Nazi resisters, because here there is no reward for Sophie and her co-conspirators. A devout Protestant, Sophie has dedicated herself to fighting the Nazis for a multitude of reasons: the never-ending slaughter of warfare, the rounding up of Jews for concentration camps, and the gassing of the mentally ill. Though her group seems possessed of a dewy-eyed optimism, Sophie herself seems too cool a customer to not know throughout her entire interrogation that there could be no positive result from all this, that their extermination would help the effort not one whit. And yet she persists, even refusing the efforts of her interrogator to claim that Hans talked her into it, just to get out of an execution, simply because it would be the wrong thing to do. There's literally nothing but a moral imperative driving Sophie here through the long and arduous interrogations and nights in jail, and yet somehow she never once comes off like a self-righteous prig. This is a martyr who goes to her death truly at peace.
Most of this couldn't have worked, though, without Jentsch in the title role. A quiet and unassuming sort of angel, she plays Sophie as a regular girl, the picture of young womanhood with her pert haircut and unassuming smile. But when the interrogator Robert Mohr (Gerald Alexander Held) goes to work on her, she parries with a quick ease, filling every hole in her story with a plausible alibi. Then, when there's no more denying her involvement, Sophie comes clean, but still refusing to name names, and instead engages in a lengthy moral debate with Mohr, whose rock-steady faith in the Führer becomes more than a little rattled by Sophie's steely denunciations.
The true tragedy of Sophie Scholl is that so many in the film are like Mohr. In 1943, the Allies are getting into the swing of their carpet bombing campaign that will, over the next two years, lay waste to vast swathes of Germany. The devastating losses at Stalingrad are making it clear that the tide has turned against the Third Reich. And yet everybody goes through the motions, proclaiming their fealty to Hitler and pretending that all those missing Jews had just resettled in the East of their own volition. As Sophie and Hans stand before their judge and lay out the case for the rot of the Nazi regime, the soldiers in the courtroom shift uncomfortably in their seats, knowing that truth is being spoken, though none will admit to it. Sophie may be a saint of sorts, but she's a wily and tough one (one can just see Jentsch in French Resistance-issue beret and overcoat, about to hurl a Molotov Cocktail at a panzer), regarding her captors with the barest wisp of a smile and the calm determination of someone truly contemptuous of those they're surrounded by.
Elegant in its moral and artistic simplicity, Sophie Scholl is less a film in some ways than a simple dramatization - the script is heavily based on actual transcripts of the interrogation and court proceedings. But that's as it should be. Too much fiction - a backstory, framing devices, and such - would have diluted the impact. Better to simply play out what happened and allow those watching (emotionally pulverized, for the most part) to leave not necessarily uplifted, because they know that precious few of us would have acted the same.
Aka Sophie Scholl - Die letzten Tage, Sophie Scholl - The Final Days.